Old New World

A collection of photographs from the 'Forward' helps US Jews re-imagine the journey of 'greening out.'

lens book 88 298 (photo credit: )
lens book 88 298
(photo credit: )
A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward Ed. Alana Newhouse W. W. Norton 352 pages; $39.95 'In my home, the Forward was treated like the Bible," recalled Gus Tyler, later a columnist himself for perhaps the most famous Yiddish language newspaper in the world. "You didn't tear, cut or muddy the pages of the Forward any more than you did the Torah." This past April the Jewish Daily Forward, founded and edited by Abraham Cahan, celebrated 110 years of publication. In recognition of the paper's near legendary status as the record of Jewish life and culture in America, Alana Newhouse, the Forward's arts and culture editor, together with a team of diligent researchers, has gathered a stunning collection of photographs recently discovered in the newspaper's vast archives. The result is A Living Lens, an evocative volume filled with hundreds of rare photographs along with brief but illuminating essays by a host of well-known scholars and critics of American Jewish life. A Living Lens accompanies the current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, "The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community," which runs through September 17. Even for those familiar with the iconic images of immigrant life on the Lower East Side, as famously captured by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, the photographs still have the uncanny power to startle and move; indeed, gazing at the images drawn from the Forward's first decades, we can, perhaps, recover the charged emotional landscape of the Lower East Side, the sacred space and imagined homeland of American Jewry, now a site of nostalgia. Of course, from the beginning the Forward sought to document the impoverished lives, as it addressed the New World disorientations of its thousands of Yiddish readers. "Cahan saw his paper as embodying the potentialities and contradictions of the entire immigrant experience," Irving Howe noted in World of Our Fathers (1976). The photographs in A Living Lens confirm that assessment. Moreover, they help us re-imagine the social-psychological transformation known in Yiddish as oysgrinung, the process of "out-greening" during the journey - for some, perhaps, an ordeal - of becoming an "American." In one evocative picture, a classroom of immigrant children (our grandparents?), neatly scrubbed and dressed, pose during a "Toothbrush Drill," dutifully practicing New World hygiene. In another, we observe a cohort of older women (our great-grandmothers?) "learning English at the National Council of Jewish Women." One can almost hear their Yiddish-inflected accents. Viewed as a whole, A Living Lens offers a still inspiring chronicle of a people (numbering over a million and a half in New York City alone by 1915) in historic transition, under the pressure of modernity, adapting to the New World. For some, the costs of becoming "American" were measured in a worried, sometimes shame-ridden sloughing off. "America makes one forget everything," a letter writer lamented to the Forward's famous "Bintel Brief," or bundle of letters, an advice column Cahan inaugurated in January 1906. It provided "a medium of outcry and relief," in Howe's description, for those feeling bewildered and displaced on the Lower East Side. ONE OF the richest subjects collected in the Forward's archive is photos of actors and entertainers and their huge audiences (confirmed by the picture of rows and rows of fans waiting outside the People's Theater, waiting to buy tickets for the Yiddish production of The Great Moment), a vibrant scene of popular culture covered by the paper's newly created arts section starting in the early 1920s. "Nearly a fourth of Manhattan's 123 nickel movie theaters were located amid Lower East Side tenements," notes J. Hoberman, which suggests something of the immigrant appetite for escape offered by the new medium. Images of a young Sophie Tucker, a young Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg), images of the ethnic shape shifter, Paul Muni (Muni Weisenfreund), in various character roles loom before us; these iconic figures embraced New World possibilities, constantly reinventing themselves in the fluid realm of the popular. At the same time, the Forward's photographic archive documents the often grim if familiar social and political realities of New World experience: the staggering human loss in the charred wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911; the "Gallery of Missing Husbands," a series that exposed those scoundrels who had deserted their families soon after arriving in the New World; the unspeakable tragedy of Abraham Sanders and his sole surviving daughter, Esther, solemnly posed before the graves, marked by plain stones in descending height, inscribed with the names of the six members of their family (Celia, Fannie, Bessie, Sylvia, Sarah and Irving) who perished in the Lewis Street fire of 1932. In keeping faith with the Forward's founding editor's unwavering socialist politics, many of the images in A Living Lens focus on the history of labor and the collective energies and dreams that fueled union organizing. As Paul Berman notes, "It was the Jewish labor movement that pioneered the modern American Jewish hyphenated identity... to champion the working class as a whole, to speak Yiddish, and, without the slightest apology, to affirm themselves as properly and fully American." We are reminded of this important legacy via a wealth of "group" photographs imaging worker solidarity - during political marches, at union outings (see especially the glowing smiles of the four youthful members of the Knitgoods Workers, part of the ILGWU), or in moving scenes of Jewish youth bonding at summer camps, like the Workman's Circle Camp Kindering, which blended (and continues to blend) social justice with Yiddishkeit. What perhaps is most striking about the images is how - from the beginning - the Forward documented events relating to the wider world of Jewish history. For uprooted immigrant readers on the Lower East Side, their local newspaper brought news and images concerning Jewish life from the Pale of Settlement, and above all from Palestine, especially in the early 20th century. In the process did the Forward help ease the immigrants' adjustment to America, assuaging the ache of New World displacement? At the very least, the photographic record of the Forward became a source of Jewish memory, a witness to world events. Crucially, in this respect, as historian Deborah Lipstadt reminds us, when US newspapers either ignored or deflected news about the Holocaust, the Forward reported constantly about the tragedy for its readers, the victims' landsleit, safe in America. "Its pages were filled with news about what was happening to Jews first in Germany and then, as the Third Reich spread its grasp, throughout Europe." By the 1970s and '80s, with a radical decline in Yiddish readership, the Forward began to lose its primary audience; Jewish American success signaled, ironically, the apparent end of the ideals the newspaper represented and championed. Even the famous Second Avenue Deli is (literally) a shadow, its presence marked by the ghostly outline of its iconic, Yiddish-inspired lettering. Still, Jewish culture continues to reinvent itself; stories of movement and dispersal shape the landscape of contemporary Jewry: Russian émigrés creating Little Odessas in Brooklyn and Israel; Jewish kitsch hawked in contemporary Krakow, a city without Jews; hipster Jews haunting the Brown Café on Hester Street. The Forward will, in this respect, remain the Jewish newspaper of record. It currently appears weekly in English, in Russian and in an invigorated Yiddish edition. These recently unearthed photographic archives speak powerfully to the Forward's historic mission as an agent of continuity, keeping faith with generations of Jewish life, in the past, and for the future. The writer teaches English at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts and is the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to 'The Goldbergs.'